Greenwich developer Bradley Nitkin is the third developer to take a crack at Front Street. This time, the city says it will really happen.
By DANIEL D'AMBROSIO, Hartford Advocate Staff Writer
August 16, 2007
For those who believe in the Big Bang theory of restoring health and vitality to downtown Hartford — and that's everybody who counts — yet another milestone is fast approaching as developer Bradley Nitkin of Greenwich plans to break ground in October on the Front Street retail and residential district near the new Convention Center.
Let's hope this milestone doesn't go down in flames like so many that have preceded it. A short review: the Front Street dream began with former Gov. John Rowland who pushed in the late 1990s for a billion-dollar makeover of downtown dubbed Adriaen's Landing. Adriaen Block was the Dutch explorer who first came to the Connecticut River Valley, and the Hartford area, in 1614.
Two big chunks of the plan — the new $230 million Connecticut Convention Center and a new Downtown Marriott Hotel to go with it — are done. A third piece of the plan, the $160 million Connecticut Center for Science, is a skeleton of iron rising near the Marriott. But the final and critical piece, the Front Street development, which is going to provide the people and the places that will actually drive the rebirth of downtown, has yet to break ground.
Without Front Street and its restaurants, bars and bookstores, all those conventioneers won't have any place to go, not to mention the rest of us who would like to enjoy a more dynamic downtown.
"We're talking retail, we're talking entertainment, we're talking residential," said Sarah Barr, press secretary for Mayor Eddie Perez, of the Front Street project. "Our goal is to make this a destination for our residents, employees and visitors."
The Front Street district was supposed to open simultaneously with the Convention Center, which made sense, but didn't happen thanks in large part to New York City developer Richard D. Cohen of Capital Properties, according to many observers.
Cohen, who signed a deal with the state Capital City Economic Development Authority (CCEDA) in 2002 to develop the project, missed deadline after deadline over the ensuing two years, until CCEDA finally told him to hit the road in 2004. Now the two sides are in court, each suing the other for breach of contract. In the end, Cohen, the second developer to take on the project, claimed the roughly $60 million in state subsidies for the Front Street project weren't enough to justify his expected investment of about $90 million.
Given the tens of millions of dollars it was kicking in, the state expected some hot bidding when it put Front Street back out to bid, but tepid would be a generous description of the response. Only four proposals came in, and CCEDA didn't like any of them. Neither did Gov. M. Jodi Rell, who has taken an active role in trying to move the project along.
Nitkin, and his development company, HB Nitkin Group, emerged as the front runner with both state and city officials in April 2005. HB Nitkin had already signed deals with more than 200 retail tenants in the state for other projects, encompassing about 1 million square feet of retail space, according to published accounts. It also didn't hurt that Nitkin was proposing to use renowned New York architect Robert A.M. Stern to design the Front Street project.
"It's going to be a very handsome and well-designed infill development," said John F. Palmieri, Hartford's director of development services, adding that the design would utilize stone and brick.
Palmieri has been with the city for only four of the nine years or so of pain associated with Front Street.
"Obviously there have been some setbacks over the past several years," he said.
But Palmieri expressed confidence that this fall, dirt really will fly on the approximately six vacant acres between Columbus and Prospect avenues near the Wadsworth Atheneum Art Museum and the new Convention Center — and that there will be no more excuses like the ones that flowed from Cohen.
"(HB Nitkin) has been negotiating letters of intent with tenants," said Palmieri. "They've already identified most of the tenants but haven't shared specific names. I can understand that."
Palmieri said he believed Nitkin has "60 to 70 percent" of the tenants he needs to fill Front Street. HB Nitkin did not return a call from the Advocate for comment. Palmieri is also taking heart in the fact that Nitkin didn't blink — and didn't ask for additional public funding — when the projected cost for Phase One of the project went from $46.5 million to $60 million.
Phase One will include 60,000 square feet of retail space and 115 rental units in "mid-rise" structures of six or seven stories, according to Palmieri.
"You want to step down from the larger corporate buildings downtown," he said. "Stepping down toward the water in a way."
The apartments are expected to be in the high end of market rates. Palmieri estimated they would go for about $2 per square foot, or $2,000 per month for a 1,000-square-foot two-bedroom apartment.
"I must say I'd like to live there if I could afford $2,500 a month for a nice unit," said Palmieri.
Phase Two, which has no official start date, would include another 100 units of housing and another 80,000 square feet of retail space.
Nitkin scored a nifty package of incentives from the city and state to build Front Street. Palmieri said the developer is getting nearly $12 million in tax abatements over 15 years, although the city will still collect about $3.5 million in taxes during that time; from a piece of property that produced exactly zero revenue previously.
In addition the city is giving Nitkin a $6 million loan backed by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development at an interest rate of 5.5 percent over 20 years. Nitkin is also getting a $2 million HUD grant for the project, thanks to the city.
The state is kicking in an additional $20 million or so in incentives, according to Palmieri, leaving Nitkin to come up with $20 million himself. Palmieri said that Nitkin's share will come mostly in the form of equity, and that the developer won't be borrowing any additional money for the project.
"If it doesn't happen it would obviously be a big surprise," said Palmieri of Front Street. "Everything has been done to allow this guy to tee it up now."